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MADRID, Spain — Olympic champion and world record holder Wayde van Niekerk opened his season in the 400m with a second-place finish at the 2021 Madrid World Athletics Continental Tour silver level meeting at Estadio Vallehermoso, on Saturday, June 19.

Van Niekerk, who will defend his Olympic title from Rio 2016 at the Tokyo Games in Japan next month, clocked 44.56 seconds to finish behind the winner, Anthony Jose Zambrano of Columbia who chased down the South African in the closing meters to take the victory in 44.51s.

Saturday’s race in Madrid was the first 400m appearance for the 28-year-old whose last quarter-mile race was a 45.89s outing in Potchefstroom on November 3, 2020.

Alexander Ogando of the Dominican Republic took third at the multi-purpose venue with a time of 45.62s ahead of his countryman Lidio Andres Feliz who ran 45.87 for fourth.

Van Niekerk got off to a very strong start and covered the entire field inside the opening 200m as he built a sizable advantage. He continued to hold that advantage heading into the home stretch but began to fade in the last 25 meters as a stronger finishing Zambrano managed to close the gap and then nipped the world record holder on the line.

However, despite being pegged back into second place, van Niekerk will be delighted to come through without any problems after he picked up an injury in his last outing in a straightaway 200m at the adidas Boston Games on May 23.

Prior to Saturday’s 400m appearance, van Niekerk had run a series of 200m in South Africa to work on his speed. His performance in Madrid was inside the Olympic qualifying standard of 44.90s.

The South African left his longtime coach, 79-year-old Ans Botha in South Africa and joined the training group of coach Lance Brauman in Florida, USA, last month, noting at the time that “I need to ensure I am training alongside the world’s best sprinters.”

Meanwhile, the winning time by Zambrano was a season’s best for him as he improved on the 44.57s performance from Doha on May 28 when he finished second to American Michael Norman at the Diamond League meeting.

Van Niekerk holds the world record of 43.03s which he set when winning the gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, five years ago.

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